Dear Still Water Friends,
I like to laugh, and one aspect of the Plum Village practice that has always appealed to me is a lightness of spirit. I’ve often heard Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) say in an orientation that our sitting and walking meditation should be joyful. If we are unhappy when we practice, if we are practicing with an energy of obligation, or, if we are focused on the results that will come to us, then we should consider changing how we are practicing. Thay also says that it doesn’t take years to practice joyfully. Some people can do it right away, with just a few days at a retreat. A favorite quote from Thay is “Mindfulness is the celebration of life in the present moment.”
Valuing a light-hearted approach to practice, I especially appreciated finding in my inbox an excerpt by Soko Morinaga Roshi that discusses “the samadhi of play.” The Sanskrit word samadhi, often translated as concentration, refers to the one-pointedness of mind developed in meditative absorption. I have encountered the term often in discussions of advanced meditative states, such as the “the samadhi of impermanence,” or “the samadhi of no-self.” However, I had never encountered the word samadhi paired with play.
At the heart of the excerpt is the story of how Morinaga Roshi advised Miss Okamoto, who confided to him that although she had practiced diligently for many decades, she was now ill and afraid of death. Morinaga Roshi explained to her:
Our lives appear to be unbroken blocks of seventy or eighty continuous years, but, actually, . . . when you maintain the straightforward frankness of your own mind as it comes to life each instant, even without effort, even without training, you are beautifully born each instant. You die with each instant, and go on to be born again, instant by instant.
… when you go to the kitchen to prepare dinner, be born in the kitchen. When you finish there, die. Then be born again at the dining table as you eat your dinner and, when you finish eating, die there. Be born in the garden, and sweep with your broom. When you get into bed at night, die there. And when daylight comes, and you awaken in your bed, be born anew. If you have cancer, be born with cancer.
Always now—just now—come into being. Always now – just now – give yourself to death. Practicing this truth is Zen practice.
Miss Okamoto fully understood what Morinaga Roshi was telling her, and in just a few weeks her life had transformed. When her disease progressed, she entered the hospital and, according to Morinaga Roshi “was greeting everybody, everything, every scene in the spirit of ‘one chance, one encounter.'”
Most people interpret this “one chance, one encounter” as applying to some very special occurrence, a once-in-a-lifetime magnificent encounter. The phrase calls to mind, for example, a tea ceremony, which happens as it happens only one time. It is generally reasoned that something which happens only once in a lifetime, a once-in-a-lifetime encounter, has to be an exceedingly special occasion, and the expression is commonly limited to this usage.
In its true sense, however, “one chance, one encounter” may occur whenever one encounters a stone, when one comes upon a weed, when one is cleaning the toilet or cooking rice. It refers to a favorability or adversity, in which there is absolutely no notion of escape. “One chance, one encounter” is to wholly melt within each one occurrence, and this is just the way Miss Okamoto saw her life out.
Morinaga Roshi was out of the country when Miss Okamoto died. His assistant, who had been with her, reported to him that her last words were: “Looking back, I have led a pretty stuffy life all these years. So I think I’ll just take a ball and go out and play in the woods now.” They placed a ball, made of colored threads, inside her grave. Morinaga Roshi reflected:
When I heard what she had said at the last, I felt joy from the bottom of my heart. Joy, because I was confident that in her living and in her dying, Miss Okamoto had literally reached a state we can call the “samadhi of play.”
If a person is working for wages, shoveling sand onto the bed of a truck with a shovel, they may get tired. Should someone happen along and offer to help out, they will most likely be glad to hand over their shovel. But suppose a child is playing in a sand pile, scooping sand into a bucket. Should someone walk up and offer to take over for a while, that child would balk at such foolishness. “Why should I want you to take over when I’m having so much fun?”
Even the most fleeting of activities, such as the business of preparing a meal, can be the samadhi of play. When you throw your heart into preparing a fine meal, which you artistically arrange on the plates and serve up, that food is swiftly devoured and you are left with dirty dishes. To carry on the samadhi of play does not only refer to creating a work of art which might grace a museum for a few hundred years, but to the most everyday of everyday affairs one performs. The duties of housekeeping serve as a good example. In a never-ending cycle, we clean, and the house gets dirty again. We sweep, and the dust comes back. We wash clothes, and they get soiled again.
… The samadhi of play is the state of mind in which one performs an activity without appraising its relative value, just as the child who plays in the sand would never dream of letting someone else take their place. It was with this mind that Miss Okamoto went out to the woods to play ball.
… Within you there is eternal life. This life arises as form and continues, instant by instant, appearing and disappearing. Moreover, this flickering, appearing and disappearing, is not the flickering of a solidified individual self; it is the sparkling appearance and disappearance of a fusion of the self and its surroundings, in union.
This Thursday, after our meditation period, we will talk about the Samadhi of Play, and begin our sharing by exploring when and how we have touched in our lives something like the Samadhi of Play. You are invited to join us.
The excerpt by Morinaga Roshi is from his book, Novice to Master: An Ongoing Lesson in the Extent of My Own Stupidity and is available on the Tricycle website.
Below is a poem, Playing with Children, by the Japanese Zen monk and poet Ryokan, who lived from 1758 to 1831.
And also, registration is now open for both our three-day Easter Weekend Practice Retreat on April 3-6 and our Mindful Family Retreat on May 1-3. The links are below.
Playing with the Children
by Ryokan, translated by Ryuichi Abe and Peter Haskel
The landscape is tinged with the first
fresh hints of green
Now I take my wooden begging bowl
And wander carefree through town
The moment the children see me
They scamper off gleefully to bring their friends
They’re waiting for me at the temple gate
Tugging from all sides so I can barely walk
I leave my bowl on a white rock
Hang my pilgrim’s bag on a pine tree branch
First we duel with blades of grass
Then we play ball
While I bounce the ball, they sing the song
Then I sing the song and they bounce the ball
Caught up in the excitement of the game
We forget completely about the time
Passersby turn and question me:
“Why are you carrying on like this?”
I just shake my head without answering
Even if I were able to say something
how could I explain?
Do you really want to know the meaning of it all?
This is it! This is it!